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DENVER — Behind 23 points off the bench from emerging Sixth Man of the Year contender Will Barton and 21 points from Gary Harris, the Denver Nuggets topped the Houston Rockets 114-108 to conclude a three-game regular season sweep of the Western Conference finalists from a year ago.
A huge part of Denver’s win was Harris, who defended James Harden admirably, allowing the 2014-15 Most Valuable Player runner up, who has come on strong late after a miserable start to the season, to just 24 points.
“Gary Harris did an unbelievable job of guarding James Harden,” a jubilated Michael Malone said after the victory. “The key to guarding James Harden is to keep him off the foul line. He goes to the foul line three times tonight, which is almost nine off his average.”
Something that was apparent from the start was the pace and determination the Nuggets came out of the gate with. It started with point guard Jameer Nelson who replaced Emmanuel Mudiay in the Denver starting lineup after an ankle injury put the rookie in a walking boot for the past two days.
Perhaps it’s Nelson’s veteran nature but he seemed more comfortable and willing to push the pace early, which got Denver out to a 36-22 first quarter lead. Malone seemed to agree that the vet was crucial in initiating things from the get-go.
“I think Emmanuel is starting to get [the importance of pushing the pace], but Jameer obviously has many years in the NBA and I’m sure maybe he’s a little more comfortable doing that,” Malone said. “I just like when we defend, rebound and run, that’s what we need to be.”
The 36 points Denver scored in the first quarter was a season high. Where the Nuggets controlled the game and really took control was on the glass. Denver came out of tonight with a 52-26 rebounding advantage.
“That’s the whole thing with our identity, if you defend and you rebound the reward is for you guys to get out and run,” Malone said. “And what I think what we’re doing a better job of lately is, throwing the ball ahead instead of dribbling the ball up every time. I think the ball travels much quicker in the air than it does on the ground, as we all know.”
After the Nuggets burst out to that first quarter lead, the game remained close throughout the second and third quarters, but a 20-4 Houston run in the waning stages of tonight’s contest pulled the Rockets to within two at 110-108.
Jason Terry then missed a wide open corner three with 16 seconds left that would have put Houston up by one, and Barton secured the Denver rebound and nailed two free throws to seal the game.
The odd part about that late Terry three point attempt was why he was so open — when the message delivered out of the Houston timeout was “no threes.”
“[Harris] overleaped on that and obviously tonight was a bad example of our 3-point defense,” Malone said. “But if you look in the last five to ten games it’s much improved from where it was. The way we guard Dwight Howard in pick and rolls, we shouldn’t be helping as much of these shooter.”
Either way, Denver pulled out a much needed win that gave them four victories in their last five games, heading into a two game road trip.
The key to this team remains defense and as Malone has preached throughout the summer, preseason and the first quarter of the regular season, the Nuggets defense will take them as far as they will go.
“If you’re able to close out the quarter, but then we were running off our defense. We we’re being aggressive,” Malone said. “We weren’t just settling, the ball was moving we were attacking. When we play that way that’s who we need to be.”
For the Rockets, Donatas Motiejunas chipped in 19 points off the bench, while former Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson continued to struggle. Lawson registered just two points on 1-5 shooting in 13 minutes and recorded a -22 for the game.
Pepsi Center – Denver, CO / Dec. 14 2015 /Game No. 24
STAR OF THE GAME
After missing six games with a concussion, Harris is once again finding his groove both offensively and defensively for the Nuggets. He held Harden in check all game, and also did his part on the offensive end. Harris is slowly but surely becoming more comfortable from beyond the arc, and isn’t afraid to step into a three like he was last year and at the beginning of this season. He also had four or five picture perfect back cuts for layups on Harden and Marcus Thornton that were sure to have Malone smiling.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Will Barton absolutely obliterated 7-footer Motiejunas mid-way through the second quarter with this baseline slam:
BY THE NUMBERS
Denver outscored Houston 62-36 in the paint.
Harris scored a career high 21 points, (8-11 FG’s) his ninth double-digit effort this season.
Joffrey Lauvergne scored a career high-tying 14 points and grabbed a career-best 14 rebounds in just 21 minutes.
QUOTE OF THE GAME
Michael Malone on Kostas Papanikolaou:
“Kostas Papanikolaou had not played in a long time. He’s also known, I believe, as the Greek Army Knife. He came out and had a very very positive impact on the game tonight. It was great to see Kostas back out there and helping us get a sweep against the Rockets.”
The Nuggets head out on a two-game road trip with stops in Minnesota (tomorrow night) and Utah before returning home to host the Pelicans and the Lakers in the next installment of the Kobe Bryant farewell tour.